Thomas Peterffy: A Hungarian immigrant who became the tech wizard of Wall Street

1st Mar 2017
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While it's hard to believe it under the current political scenario, the United States of America was once the one country where a downtrodden and financially-destitute immigrant could reach the pinnacle of success. The ‘American Dream’ drove those people who found themselves out of favour in their home countries to the ‘promised land’ in search of a better life. Among such people is Thomas Peterffy, a refugee who scaled the highest peak of success in perhaps the most storied American institution — Wall Street.

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Peterffy was born in the Hungarian capital of Budapest during a Soviet air raid in September 1944. The inhospitable environment in Hungary, created by a harsh Soviet rule and the bloody revolutions against it, saw a lot of people fleeing the country in search of better fortunes; Peterffy’s father, Perenc Peterffy, was among them. In 1965, as the situation in communist Hungary began to ease, Thomas (who was went by Tamás at the time) immigrated to New York to rendezvous with his father in New York. His father, who was living with his second wife, did not have room to accommodate his son; he gave Tamás a hundred dollars and told him to make something of himself. And there began the journey that would make a multi-billionaire out of a penniless refugee.

The young immigrant, now going by the name Thomas, could not speak English but had some engineering education. He began work as an architectural draftsman at an engineering firm in New York where he chanced upon the thing that was to shape the rest of his life: a computer. Having volunteered to program the computer, Peterffy's logical bend-of-mind saw him excel in the as-yet undeveloped field of programming.

In 1977, after years of judiciously saving money, Peterffy purchased a seat in the American Stock Exchange (AMEX) and began trading equity options. His mental prowess allowed him to write code in his head at work, code which he applied to computerised trading models after his work hours. From then on, his entrepreneurial spirit came into being — he founded his first company, T.P. % Co., in 1978, and his second, Timber Hill Inc., in 1982. A year later, Peterffy caused a major stir on the trading floor by using a hand-held computer, the first time it was ever used, for trading equity options.

By the dawn of the new millennium, Peterffy's company — which had revolutionised the industry with computerized stock index futures and options trading system — had a global presence with offices in Germany, Switzerland, UK, France, Italy, Spain, Norway, Austria, Hong Kong, and Australia. In 2001, he renamed Timber Hill Group LLC to Interactive Brokers Group LLC after pivoting the business from digital trading to electronic brokerage. The company, which is headquartered in Greenwich, Connecticut, now logs in over one million trades per day.

Forbes estimates Thomas Peterffy's net worth at $16 billion (as of February 21, 2017), which makes him the thirty-second richest man in the US. The ‘Father of High Speed Trading’, as he's fondly known, is a true example of the success an underprivileged refugee can find in the ‘Land of Opportunity’.

While most successful Americans who were once immigrants lean towards the left end of the political spectrum, Peterffy has a more conservative outlook. Peterffy happens to be a strong detractor of socialism, having witnessed its ills first hand during his earlier life in Hungary. During the 2012 US Presidential Elections (Romney vs Obama), Peterffy raised eyebrows when he released ads on major news networks lambasting socialism and asking viewers to vote Republican; it should be noted that he spent millions of dollars out of his own pocket for the ads and never once mentioned either candidate by name.

“America's wealth comes from the efforts of people striving for success. Take away their incentive with badmouthing success and you take away the wealth that helps us take care of the needy. Yes, in socialism the rich will be poorer — but the poor will also be poorer. People will lose interest in really working hard and creating jobs,” Peterffy said in his ads.

Peterffy is also among the few billionaires who backed Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Elections. Having donated $100,000 to Trump's election campaign, he said, “I think this election will determine the course of this country for a long time into the future. If we are going to continue on our current progressive course by appointing liberal judges and piling on more regulations and not simplifying the tax code, it will be very difficult to reverse at a later date. We are on a slippery slope sliding towards socialism.” While his political stance based on a solely financial outlook is understandable, how his personal experiences allow him to align with a President who advocates strong anti-immigrant and refugee stance is unknown.

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